Tribeca Review: JONATHAN Offers An Ansel Elgort Sci-Fi Brother Act

The actor impresses in a different kind of dual role.

It has been said that true science fiction is defined not by hardware, but by the importance of the science to the story. By that interpretation, Jonathan is a true but very subtle exercise in the genre, one that also offers Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort a chance to show his range.

A world premiere at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival, Jonathan posits a unique and provocative premise that is gradually revealed and unfolded in ways that consistently pique our curiosity. Elgort’s title character lives a buttoned-down, regimented existence that includes part-time employment as an architectural draftsman and living in a spartan, sterile New York apartment, where he creates daily camcorder messages to someone named John. Without the direct address, these would seem like banal video diaries in which he describes the unremarkable events of his day—until we see that John, who records similar messages back to him, looks just like Jonathan, only he sports more casual dress and attitude.

Jonathan and John, it turns out, are brothers inhabiting the same body due to a unique neurological syndrome, dividing their day: Jonathan wakes up at 7 a.m. and lives his life until 3 p.m., when he goes to bed, then John wakes up at 7 p.m. and lives his life (he has his own temp job at a law firm) before hitting the sack at 3 a.m. And repeat. Their video bulletins keep each other updated so that they can maintain the illusion of one being, one life; the only person aware of their condition is Dr. Nairman (Patricia Clarkson), who has raised them since childhood and given them a brain implant allowing for the regulation of the split personality.

Jonathan and John live by a strict code of handwritten rules to protect their secret, one of which forbids them from having relationships. But Jonathan has become suspicious of his sibling, and after hiring a private investigator (Matt Bomer in a small but potent role) to tail “himself,” he learns that John has been dating a bartender named Elena (Suki Waterhouse). This sets off an emotional chain reaction of events in which each brother behaves in ways that threaten to upset their precarious existence, putting an absorbing spin on themes of sibling rivalry and responsibility. What do you do when the relative you love threatens to derail your life, or commits what you believe to be a betrayal, and there’s no way to directly deal with him?

Debuting feature writer/director Bill Oliver and co-scripters Peter Nickowitz and Gregory Davis consider of a number of such emotional questions in Jonathan, as well as the theme of how we divide our time between the various and sometimes conflicting components of our lives. In doing so, they are neither precious about their metaphors nor melodramatic when it comes to the human interactions, as Oliver and his small cast maintain a quiet, measured and quite captivating tone emphasizing subtleties of performance. Jonathan starts the film withdrawn and recessive before the unfolding drama pushes him out of his shell, and Elgort commands our interest and sympathy throughout, making us believe in his odd relationship with “himself.” Although we don’t see John in real time (an intriguing companion film might retell this story from his point of view, following his largely nocturnal activities), we get a complete sense of his character and how distinctive he is from Jonathan, and his presence is felt throughout despite his limited screen time.

Clarkson brings her dependable depth of feeling to Dr. Nairman, who’s concerned for her dual patient even as she values practicality over sentiment, and Waterhouse makes a sensitive impression in a departure from her showier projects (like The Bad Batch and a co-starring turn opposite Elgort in Insurgent). Jonathan is a different kind of sci-fi, one that approaches material that could have been spun in visceral or hi-tech directions in a manner that emphasizes the smaller, less sensational human picture—and is no less compelling for it.